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The scorching heat of the Nairobi sun burns through my forehead as I race past students to get to my class. Galamanda Secondary School is known for its highly achieving students and students with the most polished school shoes. Kovu is waiting for me outside the classroom and we enter the room just as Mrs. Nyawanda begins to call the register.
I hate afternoon classes, everything becomes hot and sticky. The long socks on my legs start to cling to my flesh like leeches and the green sweater on my back drenches my shirt in sweat. Kovu advices I should remove the sweater but I refuse. My pink bra is not for the benefit of boys to stare or for the girls to gossip about.
Mrs. Nyawanda is now drawing a flower on the white board and it would be beautiful were it not for the weird structures she is labeling on the diagram. Stamen, anther, filament, sepal, petal. I love how red roses smell. Kovu knows these are my favorite and he always brings me some from his father’s farm in Naivasha.
Finally I can hear the school bell chime, signaling our time in this hour-long prison is over. Mrs. Nyawanda makes sure we write down the pages we must read as holiday homework before releasing the class. I am craving a juicy, on the brink of ripeness mango smothered in chilli mix! The street vendor’s chilli mix is unbeatable and cannot be matched by the homemade stuff. But I have 5 shillings left after buying that Maths text-book from Cynthia. I am adamant that Kovu will not have to pay for our treat this time. Let’s see if Lisa has some money on her.
Making my way towards my sister who is standing amongst her many admiring friends I ask her for the cash. Lisa digs into her bag and hands me a brown, crumpled fifty shilling note that has a number scrawled on it in blue Biro on one corner. ‘Don’t forget to give me back the change’, she warns as I retreat, clutching the paper in happiness.
Minutes later I am biting into a piece of mango lusciously slathered in chilli and salt like a succulent sour offering from heaven made just to tantalize me. The bite sends my taste buds into a frenzy as they decipher the fresh, clean taste of the raw mango mixed with the earthy kick of spices. The deep, dark green skin of the mango has been stripped off to reveal its lighter skinned counterpart hiding within. All eight strips of the mango still clinging onto the base after being seared by the vendor have opened up like the petals of a flower. Mrs. Nyawanda’s drawing may have been ugly, but this flower is beautiful. Kovu and I munch away as I make sure to put the thirty shillings in my pocket to give back to Lisa later on.
Today is the last day of school and after working hard the entire term it is only fair that we have some fun. Kovu and I board the matatu from school which is taking us to Thika so we can go and see the brand new mall that has opened up. I hear they have a theatre and everything. Perhaps I can buy some popcorn and go look at all the pretty dresses in the shops. Mine was just the mango, Kovu has to now treat me!
The matatu conductor bangs against the body of his red car adorned with the face of Louis Van Gaal, which brings the driver to a screeching halt. He stops smack in the middle of the busy road, overflowing with cars, motorbikes, mkokotenis and pedestrians. We hop out quickly just before the vehicle begins to move away again.
The mall is a massive construct of glass and steel, with many floors and escalators all leading up or down. I am terrified of the escalator but Kovu assures me there is nothing to worry about. As we hold hands and make our way down the escalator my heart begins to race thinking about stepping off at the end. What if I trip?! Luckily we step off just in time – how embarrassing would it have been, had I fallen?!
There are so many shops with ladies all walking around, stomping away in their high heels and smacking their glossed lips together while chatting away with friends on expensive looking cell phones. I admire one who has a long mane of dark brown hair farming her face as she walks past. Her skin is golden brown burnished to perfection with a foundation while her eyes are lovingly lined with kohl so they speak to you without her mouth uttering a word. I eye Kovu , looking to make sure he does not look at her well endowed derriere. The lipstick wearing, weave wielding, thick thighed woman walks past without even glancing at us. She is making her way to a salon called “Voovalicous!” I am envious of this woman. It’s not her admirable caked face or the cacophony she creates while walking in those shoes. It’s the hair. That hair. I want that hair.
Kovu has removed his sweater now and looks every bit as handsome as an actor on TV. He is tall and muscular with a diamond earing on one ear lobe and he gives off an air of confidence which cannot be taught. ‘Niaje ? Poa poa,’ he talks away on his cellphone to some buddy while eyeing the woman who is walking towards the salon. I bet he is admiring her hair.
Back home I am happy to hand over Lisa’s change while she sets the table for dinner.
Once we have had dinner I am staring into the mirror trying to picture myself with a crop of shiny hair hanging over my shoulder.
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I try on a black scarf over my head to envision the beauty I will be. Lisa walks in and catches me in the act. Oh no, this is going to be hard to explain. I am quick to lie that the scarf is to keep my shaved head warm. But my sister is no fool, and she sits me down on the bed after putting the scarf away.
I explain to her my desire, unable to meet her eyes and she listens to me carefully. All I want is to get my hair done like that beautiful woman who Kovu could not stop staring at while he was “on the phone.” My scalp seems inadequately bald and boring in comparison. If I had such hair then he would look at me the same way and not stare at any other woman. After all, I am sixteen and should be able to wear my hair as I like not how mother advises.
Lisa laughs at me and gently tells me that Kovu should like me for who I am not for my hair or my clothes and the way I walk. It is the person that I am from within which will make him stay with me. If I pretend to be something I am not how will he ever get to know the real me? My sister hands me over the thirty shillings from earlier on and tells me to buy some more mangoes tomorrow. These are the simple joys in life she says. Not the weaves or the heels. Our personality is what makes us who we are. Not the things we buy and pretend to be. I know my sister was trying to help. But she doesn’t understand.
The thirty shillings goes straight into the blue handkerchief which I stash away at the back of my cupboard. I am careful to tie each of the two opposite corners together at the top and make a knot so my coins don’t fall out. I will keep adding money till I have enough to get that weave. Then I will be beautiful. Perhaps next week I will ask Lisa for another thirty bob.